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UK agriculture and nurse researchers’ Farmers’ Dinner Theater grows safety, mental health awareness in rural Kentucky

UK agriculture and nurse researchers’ Farmers’ Dinner Theater grows safety, mental health awareness in rural Kentucky

UK agriculture and nurse researchers’ Farmers’ Dinner Theater grows safety, mental health awareness in rural Kentucky


Rural young Kentuckians will have the opportunity to explore their artistic skills while learning about farm safety and mental health through Farmers’ Dinner Theater, a partnership between the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment and the UK College of Nursing.  

“The theaters are an opportunity to build stronger communities and to get teens to think about how they fit in and understand and identify local issues,” said Julie Marfell, co-lead for the project and associate professor in the UK College of Nursing. “The partnership between the two colleges allows us to look at rural issues from two different lenses, which strengthens our ability to provide communities with the services they need.” 

The “Farmers’ Dinner Theater” model was originally created by Deborah Reed, professor emeritus in the UK College of Nursing, as an innovative, nontraditional way to educate farmers about occupational health and safety risks. Reed’s decades of community-based research on Kentucky farms found that famers are not persuaded by traditional lectures and pamphlets and don’t have the time in their demanding work schedules to attend educational meetings. The dinner theater format offers a casual setting and harnesses farmers’ affinity toward storytelling to help inform them about commonly unaddressed health and safety risks in their community.   

Four counties will host programs this year. The first program will be offered as a camp in Warren and Logan counties July 12-15 with a performance on the evening of July 15. The weeklong camp will give youth the opportunity to write plays and design sets based on challenges and issues in their area. Local leaders will serve as actors and perform the plays for the community to cap off the week. 

Daviess and Henderson counties will host a similar program later this year. UK College of Nursing staff will facilitate both programs.  

“The Farmers’ Dinner Theater program gives us the opportunity to celebrate rural culture and values while addressing relatable health and safety themes that affect farm families,” said Jennifer Hunter, assistant director of family and consumer sciences extension and project co-lead. “This year’s performance theme will focus on mental health including suicide awareness. In addition to learning theater techniques and skills, students will develop a greater understanding of mental health awareness and locally available resources.” 

University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service agents in the four counties are assisting in youth and community leader recruitment. 

“The agents have been instrumental in helping us develop these programs as they are the authorities on their communities,” Marfell said. 

“Our goal is to prevent bigger safety issues on farms by starting conversations about potential issues between family members,” said Janet Turley, Warren County 4-H youth development agent. 

In Kentucky, 112 out of 120 counties are considered medically underserved. The program is an opportunity to change things for the better, as youth participants will also receive QPR training. QPR stands for question, persuade and refer. It will help them identify when someone might be going through personal struggles and available community resources that may help them. 

“Since I became a nurse practitioner, my focus has been on access to care,” Marfell said. “It’s important for people to have access to care, especially mental health services, and to know it is okay to seek out services if they need them.” 

Nathan Lawson, director of the Kentucky Beef Council, said the council recognized the need for better access to care in rural Kentucky and happily provided matching funds to support the program.  

“The vibrance of Kentucky’s farming communities is rooted in the health and well-being of our farmers and their families,” he said. “The Kentucky Beef Council is grateful for the opportunity to support programs that equip communities and farm families with the tools they need to help protect the mental well-being of our farmers, our friends and neighbors.” 

This work was made possible through support from the Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action, an initiative of the AARP Foundation, AARP, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Kentucky Beef Council. 

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